How to Have a Happy (But Not Headless) Samhain

Written by Luke Greensmith

Originally published on October 30th, 2021


It’s Halloween! My favourite holiday!


We are having a small break from the Most Haunted in Britain series I’ve been up to, which will conclude next episode, to pop over to Ireland for more Samhein stories! I still want to get a bit more global, if only a look about Europe, but there’s so much more folklore to go in Ireland yet where the Celtic traditions survived I’ve gone back to basics this special. We have some festival traditions to share this episode, and then we’re on a bit of a Samhein creature rampage.


(Sorry Brennan)


So let’s get cracking with things that go bump in the night! Jack-o-lantern’s at the ready for this special. But first, let’s talk the festival itself.


SECTION BREAK – Lighting up the night


Now, the natives of the British Isles sure did like their bonfires. There are four quarterly fire festivals: Samhein and Imboc for the dark half of the year, then Beltane and Lughnassadh (Loo-nas-sah) for the light half of the year. This all ties into a pagan Wheel of the Year, which combines both the Celtic seasonal celebrations along with the solar solstice and equinox observances which survived through Anglo-Saxon traditions. This gives a variety of neo-pagans, especially wiccans, an 8 fold calendar of key observances, with practitioners on the southern hemisphere having their Wheel adjusted by 6 months to fit their seasons and solar cycles.


As it’s the Halloween special, it’s the Samhain festival I’ll be focusing on for now, but the Celtic pagan traditions are pretty fascinating and lie just below the surface of the later traditions which overwrote them.


Samhein pretty much translates to “Summer’s End”, and is a harvest festival at its heart. As well as the ground we’ve covered in previous year’s specials there’s also some interesting details specific to the druidic fire festival. The great harvest Samhein represented was all hands on deck, and families would work hard outdoors for a large part of it. Hearths would be allowed to go out, or else would be ritually extinguished. The important part was that no fire burned still in the homes, to allow for what followed next.


A great communal bonfire would be built to burn throughout the night of celebrations, or mourning the passing of Summer, of looking ahead to fight off the darkness of Winter to survive and see Spring again.


As an added note for the festivities: Apples are curiously significant here, as a part of the start of longer nights was the last collection of the apples. Celebrations including bobbing for apples, trying to eat apples dangling from string without using your hands, and various different ways apples get candied are all rooted in this, and have claimed many a tooth through misadventure across the centuries.


There is also a wider context for the relighting of the hearths which tie into Irish royalty. The regional King’s chief Druid would light a massive bonfire at Tlachtga (Clackda), and the flames which would relight the hearths would all come from this sacred site as a sign of fealty to the Kings of Mide.


Tlachtga (Clackda) is an incredibly significant place, named after the red haired daughter of the Arch-Druid Mug Ruith who died there giving birth to triplets. She was a powerful druidess in her own right, who travelled the world with her father in his flying machine the “roth ramach” learning the secrets of sacred stones. There is an incredible amount of myth and legend to unpack with Clackda, so I’ll leave this as the briefest of run down. Just know that the hill with her name is a sacred place. The church did a great job of burying the stories of the location for centuries, but ongoing attempts to restore the history of Ireland have done a lot of work and no small amount of literal digging, archaeologists have confirmed that what became known as The Hill of Ward was indeed a massive burn site dating back to 500 BCE. Modern day pagans now carry torches to Clackda at Samhein in a revival of older practices.


It’s not too much of a journey to visit… I may need to head over myself one future Samhein.


SECTION BREAK – Mischief of the Sidhe


The threat of how close the otherworld comes to that of the living has had a lot of worried observations in the past, which now live on in the celebration of all things spooky this time of year. Guising to hide that you are a vulnerable human, or at least your identity, from the dead and worse has been around for a long time. Pagan Scotland had a Halloween tradition of the young men of the farmsteads sprinting around the boundaries of their land holding lit torches to keep the dead out, along with the fairy creatures which are set to cause chaos as the light gives way for the dark.


As well as there being an anything goes grab bag of mischief for all things liable to go bump in the night, there’s a specific fae which has special ties to what is now known as Halloween.


The Pucah.


Pucah are a little different than a lot of creatures active around Halloween, in that they are at their most respectful and best behaved this time of year. They play a key role in the change of the seasons, and any crops not correctly harvested are considered their offerings. Traditional stories of Pucah told to children are fables explaining about leaving alone anything which wasn’t harvested in time. Not only does anything left unharvested after Samhein the property of the Pucah, anything they don’t get around to eating themselves will be spoiled with assorted bodily fluids. Any crops and fruits that weren’t properly collected are now untouchable, unless you want to risk falling ill.


As I type the script for this, I can’t help but feel Pucah may be a root word for Puking, a euphuism for vomiting, just in case it needed hammering home how disgusting this particular activity is.


This is the Pucah’s role around the harvest festival, and they play it proudly. As gross as this may seem to us, it does mean the Pucah will be unlikely to get up to their usual mischief.


Pucah are something of a year round menace should you cross them any other time than Samhein when they will be busy doing, er, their thing. They are shapeshifters who delight in tricking the dumb they find out on remote paths at night. They can appear as humans if they want, but they will always have some animal tells on them. Tails, ears, snouts, or hooves: If you are sharp eyed and not gullible you should just treat the Pucah with firm respectful rebuttals as they make suggestions to get you into trouble. If you don’t fall for any of the shortcuts they intend to get you lost on, or such terrible ideas as crossing a stream they promise you isn’t as deep as it looks, they will move on in search of someone more fun.


Their animal disguises are perfect, though, and it’s the behaviour you need to watch. Don’t go following strange animals in the night is a pretty simple common sense test, which is why the Pucah does it. They’re the fae equivalent of a scam email: It’s obviously a scam because it wants to weed out the smart and get to the preferred target.


While they can be pretty versatile in their shapeshifting, there’s a pretty well known favourite Pucah trick. They will charge up to a traveller in the night in the form of a horse, and then just stop, offering an easy mount.


Now, this should go without saying, but maybe just don’t? But to some this looks like a free horse plus a faster way home. It really isn’t. Even if it was a random horse in the night, this is how you get kicked so hard they never find all of your head for the funeral. Although a Pucah in disguise isn’t looking to kill the unwary, that wouldn’t be fun enough.


Pucah have a trick you see among Kelpies, in that once you touch them you’re stuck until they choose to let you go. The good news is Pucah aren’t trying to eat children like the bloody Kelpies do, underrated terrors that they are. The bad news is, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Once the Pucah has their toy, it’s time to play! They will race around the countryside erratically at unnatural speed, so should you have fallen for this trap prepare to crash through all sorts of branches and hedgerows while getting VERY saddlesore. Once the Pucah has got their mischief zoomies out of their system, they dump the traveller back exactly where they found them battered and exhausted, not a step closer to their destination. The laughing Pucah will then gallop off in search of more fun.


For all this, Pucah can bring good luck. It’s traditional that deliberate offerings should be left on the floor after Samhein so that the Pucah aren’t left out, something which should reward the fields come Spring. They are also simple enough to deal with even if they are out to cause chaos, by just not being dumb. Don’t eat anything off the ground after Samhein, and don’t be fall for an obvious trick when a gift horse in the night is smiling at you.


SECTION BREAK – A very traditional spook


Oh, now this one is something special! We’re talking the Dullahan. (DOOL-a-HAN)


I guarantee everyone knows this one by it’s more common name. The Dullahan are the origin of the Headless Horseman myths!


It’s settled in the weird pop cultural niche the Banshee also occupies, where it exists in the modern zeitgeist as some sort of ghost but it’s actually a fairy creature. And there is so much to unpack from the Dullahan!


The can appear as either a man or woman riding upon a black horse, pretty impossible to mistake given that they are carrying their head under their arm. Their head will appear pretty obviously dead and rotten with an extreme rictus grin giving them a notably demonic look. I’ve found a brilliant description of how their skin will have flesh resembling old cheese, for bonus gruesomeness. It appears to be very common for a Dullahan to have a whip made out of a spinal column.


But that’s all the common stuff. There’s a less common yet fascinating depiction of a Dullahan drawing a carriage behind them. The carriage will be made out of corpse parts: skulls turned into lanterns with candles, wheels made from bones, and dried human skin used to make a covering.


It’s probably pretty easy to see the association with death, here.


They are in search of the place a person will die, where they stop on their ride is a cursed place carrying a heavy doom. No normal means can bar their way, doors and gates will open up for them as they approach, any attempt to bar or lock up against a Dullahan will simply fall away. When they stop, that IS where someone will die. There even some stories where a Dullahan can call out a person’s name and they will simply drop dead.


Carriage or no, as fascinating as a Dullahan may be to some it’s the people who take one look and flee who are doing it right. These Sidhe hate to be stared at, anyone stopping to watch them pass risks getting the angry Dullahan trying to whip at their eyes. You can also get a container of blood thrown at you, unpleasant at the best of times and possibly marking you out for the next death omen.


Samhein being the time the barriers between world’s are thinnest, and the beginning of the death of the seasons, you’re most likely to encounter a Dullahan during the night of the festival. They’re a very good reason to guise yourself if you’re out after dark, you don’t want to be recognised if you’re the one a Dullahan seeks. There’s a very specific weakness they have though, and that is they are terrified of gold. A bit of a departure from the usual weakness to cold iron, this could be down to how gold doesn’t corrode when a Dullahan is a creature of death and decay, but even a small gold pin should be enough to ward one off in a pinch. Plus, don’t stare at them. It’s not polite at the best of times, and not worth getting a spine whip to the face over.


SECTION BREAK – Be ready to run on Samhein


There’s a specific traveller on Samhein to watch out for. Not Stingy Jack, who we’ve already talked about on a previous Halloween special. He’s more of a pest you need to be careful to keep out of your home. This is someone you need to be ready to run from, and I mean flee!


This is the Lady Gwyn.


There’s a chance the Lady is a human spirit, she is abroad on Samhein after all, but there’s a lot of curious details about her. She may will be a Sidhe Lady, giving you all the more reason not to cross her path. In appearance she seems to be something between a Banshee and a Dullahan, a lady in white carrying her severed head around. Not always though, sometimes her head is resting where you would expect to find it to trick people into getting closer, although it can become detached as she reveals her true nature. She should be simple enough to tell apart from a random spirit due to her familiar, she is always followed around by a giant black sow with no tail.


The Lady Gwyn likes to pretend to be a lost soul seeking help, playing the role of the pitiful to lure people closer. But should someone get close to her, she will reveal her true nature and chase the unfortunate traveller screaming her head off, very possibly literally, with her pig familiar right behind. I haven’t found what happens should Lady Gwyn catch her chosen victim, her name is similar to something in Dark Souls so the internet has buried mention of her under videogame discussions and I’m going to need to go book diving for solid info here. It’s safe to say you do not want to get caught, though.


Her stories appear to be a warning to stay away from the dead at Halloween. What appears to be sad ghost in need of help may be far more, and far worse, than it first seems. Given the dual nature of the Sidhe that may well be what she is doing out and about this perilous night of the year, chasing anyone dumb enough to be fooled by a spirit looking to catch out an unwary traveller. A bit of tough love to keep people suitably cautious. Stories do in fact mention that you can encounter her in a good mood. Still, don’t let her catch you, even if she seems cheerful. It’s not likely to end well.


SECTION BREAK


That’s all for this episode. Happy Halloween everyone!


Watch yourself should you be travelling at night, and make sure you have Jack-o-lantern’s about to keep unwanted houseguests away. Leave the Pucah spoiled harvest in the fields well alone, and don’t stare at any Dullahans no matter how cool their corpse cart is.


But best of all, enjoy the holiday!


As a note for going forwards, I could probably do a whole episode on Wheel of the Year observances, but may just bring them up in individual episodes around the times we hit them across 2022. If there’s any particular preference, please let me know. I’m in the early planning stages for next year right now so can pivot to how people would like to hear this history.


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Goodbye for now.